race

On Material Racism: A Primer for Catholics (Guest Post)

Canon lawyer Daniel Quinan explains how the Catholic understanding of sin can inform our understanding of racism.

Guest post by Daniel Quinan

Consider the following scenario: Without any malicious intent, a civil judge tends to display disproportionate sympathy for offenders whose appearance reminds him (subconsciously) of himself and/or his children. This bias naturally results in an accidental racial disparity: those who don’t share the judge’s skin color tend to be treated more harshly than those who do look more like him.

Question 1: Is this judge racist? 

Question 2: Is his behavior racist?

When beginning to answer this question, the impulse of many people is to crack open a dictionary, or hop on Google, and find the most common definition of racism. This will provide them with definitions such as: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”, or “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics”.

From these definitions, it will logically follow — or so the argument goes — that racism simply cannot be present in the absence of a core racist belief (e.g. that one’s own race is superior, or that some races are superior or inferior to others). And therefore, both of the above questions must be answered in the negative: (1) No, the judge is not necessarily racist: for there is no reason to assume, uncharitably, that he is secretly harboring an internal allegiance to white supremacy. (2) No, his behavior is not racist: he might be exhibiting an unjust bias or prejudice toward those who share his skin color, but this could be due to a natural (even if still problematic) psychological phenomenon such as the mere-exposure effect; thus it does not necessarily follow that the judge is acting on the basis of a hidden racist motive.

If those answers make sense to you, and seem like the definitive end of the question (as they once did to me), then the remainder of this post is for you. Because those answers are wrong. And the error does not lie in the logic of the answer, but further back, embedded in the starting premise: through adopting an overly-narrow definition of what it truthfully means for someone or something to be racist.

In order to highlight this error, we must turn to a reflection on the traditional distinction, in Catholic moral theology, between formal sin vs. material sin. As the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia entry on sin explains: “An action which, as a matter of fact, is contrary to the Divine law but is not known to be such by the agent constitutes a material sin; whereas formal sin is committed when the agent freely transgresses the law as shown him by his conscience”. (If needed, an additional source confirming the authenticity of “material sin” as a legitimate notion in Catholic moral theology can be found in Dominic M. Prümmer, O.P.’s 1921 Handbook of Moral Theology: Treatise 5, Chapter II. 159.5.)

After observing this distinction, the following example is used: “a person who takes the property of another while believing it to be his own commits a material sin; but the sin would be formal if he took the property in the belief that it belonged to another”. Again, to be very clear: If you mistakenly believe the backpack on the ground to be your property, and therefore take it, then you have committed the material sin of theft. It makes no difference that your action was not formal sin, lacking sufficient knowledge and consent, and that you (therefore, it is true) bear little-to-no moral culpability for having accidentally committed a material sin. The fact irrevocably remains: you have still committed a materially sinful action, an injustice (even if accidental) toward your neighbor, and you are obliged to attempt to remedy this injustice when it is finally brought to your attention.

Another example may be helpful: If you drive through an intersection during a heavy night rain, and happen to strike and kill a man who was crossing the street — even purely by accident, and with zero moral culpability under the circumstances — your action remains materially sinful, and objectively inflicts a grave injustice upon your neighbor. You may even have an obligation to help address the objective injustice you have unintentionally caused to your neighbor’s family. You do not get to argue: “I could not see him, and the stop sign had been knocked down, and I didn’t intend to cause any harm, therefore I have no obligation whatsoever to that man or his family”, and simply walk away without a shred of responsibility for repairing the harm that you have in fact caused.

This distinction allows us to reframe our concept of racism in a helpful way, making it clear that a racist action (objectively considered) does not require any formally racist motive. On the material level, a racist action does not require any malicious intent, in just the same way that material theft does not require any malicious or formally sinful intent. An individual, community, or system can accidentally (without malicious intent) discriminate unjustly against a black person or community, and thereby be engaged in materially racist behavior. There is absolutely no need to identify (or otherwise uncharitably presume) a secret racist motive inside the heart of those who discriminate unjustly, or contribute to unjust discrimination. It is sufficient to identify that the materially sinful action has taken place: the moment that fact is verified, we can, in a qualified but very legitimate way, describe such an action as being “racist”.

Again, to be clear: It does not matter if the action fails to rise to the level of being formally racist (i.e. flowing from an intellectual adherence to white supremacy). It does not matter if those engaged in objectively racist actions would, having stopped to consider it, truthfully deny harboring any racist beliefs. Materially speaking, the only fact that needs to be identified is: that an individual, community, or system contains an unjust internal bias toward treating different races differently. This unjust internal bias remains materially racist even if it is purely unintentional, and even it exists in the absence of a formally racist belief. Actions that unintentionally flow from that materially racist bias, and contribute to materially racist harms, are still rightly described as objectively “racist”, in the same way that even an innocent material theft is still an objective theft that causes an objective injustice.

We are now prepared to return to our questions, and give the correct answers:

Scenario: Without any malicious intent, a civil judge tends to display disproportionate sympathy for offenders whose appearance reminds him (subconsciously) of himself and/or his children. This bias naturally results in an accidental racial disparity: those who don’t share the judge’s skin color tend to be treated more harshly than those who do look more like him.

Answer to Question 1: Is this judge racist? Formally speaking, it is possible that he might harbor a secret allegiance to white supremacy, but there is no need to uncharitably presume this. And yet, at the same time, it remains possible to truthfully describe him as materially racist, on account of his actions. 

Answer to Question 2: Is his behavior racist? Formally speaking, perhaps we cannot say so. But materially speaking, yes, his actions are absolutely racist. Judges or juries that in fact exhibit a racial bias when they make their ruling (toward treating “those who look like us” more leniently than “those who don’t look like us”) are engaged in at least materially racist behavior. This is practically the textbook definition of unjust discrimination on the basis of skin color.

It does not matter if this internal bias is perhaps a “natural” psychological phenomenon, historically widespread across cultures; it does not matter how many black friends the judge or jury members have, or how much those individuals have actively supported the black community, or how pure and innocent the motivation inside their heart actually is. Those who objectively (even only accidentally) discriminate unjustly in their actions toward racial minorities are still committing materially racist actions. Malicious intent is not required to identify either the materially sinful bias, or the materially sinful action.

This conclusion might be surprising, if we are accustomed to thinking about “racism” exclusively in a very narrow sense that requires formally racist motives or beliefs in order to satisfy the definition; but it is a conclusion that emerges naturally from a simple analysis of sin in Catholic moral theology. It is also only a limited exploration of the matter, neither adopting nor here considering the definitions of “racism” that have been advanced by theorists who have studied the question. In order to further understand racism, its history, and its effects, we must engage with thinkers who have explored these questions seriously, and listen attentively to the voices of those who have personally experienced discrimination.


Further reflections, objections, and questions:

In the popular imagination, we seem to conceive of racism exclusively as a pure evil, perhaps even as a textbook synonym for white supremacy. We think of racism so exclusively as a monstrous formal sin that we have blinded ourselves to correctly identifying materially racist actions by the same name, when they appear in lesser forms. Accordingly, we end up feeling an urge to label non-malicious (but still materially racist) actions as… unjust prejudice, unfair racial bias, something else, anything else, but not racism, because we don’t want to uncharitably (or falsely) accuse our neighbor of being a moral monster who secretly believes in white supremacy. Moreover, we might examine our own souls and be confident that we definitely don’t secretly harbor any formally racist beliefs, and therefore it feels wrong to label our own potentially sinful biases as even remotely “racist”.

But this instinct is wrong. It requires a bizarre blindness to the very same basic moral distinction that routinely allows Catholics to correctly observe that an innocent theological statement might be materially heretical, without thereby labeling the individual who holds it as a monstrous formal heretic. It is simply incorrect to force every question of racism through the analytical lens of formal sin, and refuse to acknowledge the objective reality of — and objective harm that can be caused by — merely material sin, even in the presumed absence of formal sin.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that the larger societal impacts of “merely” materially racist biases are less insidious than the societal impacts of formally racist biases. Materially racist behaviors do not deserve to be rooted out of society any less, just because there might be reduced moral culpability for those who unknowingly engage in those behaviors. On the contrary, a lack of blatant moral culpability simply makes this subtler form of racism more difficult to identify and root out.

This is why our cultural conversation is turning increasingly to the concept of “systemic racism”, which is perhaps an ideal textbook example of material racism. An allegation of systemic racism requires us to make no claim whatsoever about the formal motives or beliefs of individual judges or police officers; it is sufficient to merely identify policies and structures that inherently tend to cause or reinforce unjust racial disparities. It only needs to be shown that individuals in the justice system (or in the corporate business world, or in the Church, or on the street) unconsciously or accidentally follow a pattern of treating black persons (or other racial minorities) differently than they treat white persons, without a just cause. The sooner we realize that it is possible to truthfully classify racially biased systems and behaviors as examples of material racism (implying no accusation or assumption about what is in our neighbor’s heart), the sooner we can begin to move forward with a more fruitful discussion.

Objection 1: Even if it is possible to speak of merely “material” racism, raising the spectre of “racism” at all is imprudent, since this generally refers to formal racism, such as white supremacy. Those whom you are trying to persuade will misunderstand you, be offended, and be more likely to stop listening.

Reply 1: If the societal impacts of material racism are just as harmful and insidious as formal racism, then raising the (truthful) spectre of “racism” is not counterproductive. On the contrary, the reflexive negative reaction that the term generates is desirable: a civil judge, trusted to fulfill his role with due impartiality, who displays disproportionate bias favoring offenders of his own race should feel guilty for having slipped into this behavior, when it is pointed out to him. That guilt is valuable: because it underscores the importance of the injustice that has in fact been inflicted, and provides a motive to reform this behavior.

Objection 2: In order to accuse a law or system of being even materially racist, you would have to show that those laws or systems were put in place: either with the intent of generating significant racial disparities, or with callous indifference to them.

Reply 2: This is incorrect, because identifying material racism does not require us to also identify the existence of some past malice or negligence. It is sufficient to show that these things, in fact, presently do tend to cause (that is: create or sustain) unjust racial disparities. The moment this fact has been identified, we immediately have an obligation to repair the injustice in the law or the system. Callous indifference to (or irrational denial of the existence of) the unjust harm being caused, once it has been brought to your attention, simply becomes a second layer of the problem: a second layer that is also materially racist (if not formally so) on account of the racial injustice that it in fact perpetuates.

Question: Can silence be racist? 

Answer: Not per se, but accidentally. That is to say: under certain circumstances, silence can still be materially racist on account of the racial injustice and harm that it in fact perpetuates. Again, as soon as racism (even if “only” material racism) has been brought to our attention, we have a moral obligation to denounce it. Thus, even with the most innocent or well-meaning of conscious intentions being presumed: a decision to remain silent about grave injustice afflicting the black community inherently tends to perpetuate that injustice. Even a decision to remain relatively silent — for instance: by loudly denouncing certain recent injustices (such as looting) while not giving at least equal condemnation to objectively-worse injustices (such as murder) — can objectively qualify as a materially racist behavior: insofar as it tends to perpetuate the racial injustices being suffered by the community, through unjustly (even only accidentally) drawing due attention away from their plight . Again, malicious intent is not required to identify a material sin. Silence or neglect, especially on the part of civil or ecclesiastical leadership, can amount to a form of moral complicity in or remote cooperation with unjust discrimination: by perpetuating, enabling, and adding to the suffering of those who are crying out for justice. Silence can rightly be condemned as racist, at least materially, under these circumstances.


Daniel is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (2010) currently working as a canon lawyer (Catholic University of America, 2014 JCL) while living in Saint Paul, Minnesota.


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5 comments on “On Material Racism: A Primer for Catholics (Guest Post)

  1. Pingback: Cementing Systemic Racism in a Local Catholic Parish – Chris Damian

  2. Daniel, while your application of “material” and “formal” to racism is intriguing, please, in charity, consider the dire consequences of this line of reasoning.
    Generally and practically speaking, if a sane person is unconsciously biased in some way, their bias should be slight, and except in extreme situations, inconsequential. In other words, if that judge consciously strives to be impartial, unless he/she is mentally deranged, he/she will be so in most cases. If you are saying the subconscious is SO powerful that this person attempting to be just will fail significantly to do so despite his intellectual and moral efforts to the contrary, then how can anyone be considered trustworthy?

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  3. James Kirton

    As not to be silently sinful. Your argument that we are all racist has no merit. There might be a person or a case but your argument is about an entire people an entire system. You need to prove your case for systemic racism with actual data an statistics show the government policy not just words other wise you are no more than a silver tongue. Show where the injustice is. As far as American is concerned you wont find any, anywhere.
    Now as far as the biblical perspective goes wouldnt it be more prudent to acknowledge the fact that as Christians especially as Catholics we should not be taken in by the divisive word race? Are we not all from the same parentage? Are our differences not just environmental adaptations?
    Tell me, are your words not hinting at that those who havent committed sin are as guilty as those who have? If a person lives according to the law should they be held accountable for the sins of their parents? The answer according to GOD is no.

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  4. I think you are misunderstanding what is meant by a material sin. A material sin is a human act the object of which is sinful; it is also formally sinful if the object is willed as sinful by the agent. But something is an object of a human act only if it is the object of the will. Falling down off a ladder is not a human act because being down is not willed. Acts that are not willed are not human, and so cannot be sinful in any way. So the person whose car won’t stop in a heavy rain and kills someone is not (barring negligence) committing a material sin; though a terrible thing happens, no injustice is committed. On the other hand, if Huck Finn had returned Jim to his owners, his act would have been a human act, a materially sinful one, but not formally sinful because he would not have performed it knowing it was sinful. Unless, of course, one would say that he should have known that what all Christian society told him was right was not right.

    You cannot, then, argue that unequal outcomes imply racism, even materially, unless you can argue that those unequal outcomes are intended because of race. They might happen because of greed, or because of carelessness, but those are different sins; or they might happen per accidens to the act of being a good steward of one’s resources. In the latter case, even if known, they would not be sinful according to the principle of double effect, as long as the good brought about is greater than they evil that, thought foreseen, is not intended.

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  5. Pingback: My Writings on Racism: An Initial Overview – Chris Damian

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